OPINION| Liliesleaf Farm is a vital part of South Africa’s history that needs to be preserved

There is surely a hit movie waiting to be made about Liliesleaf Farm, legendary secret headquarters of the anti-apartheid underground in the early 1960s. The story has it all: a daring secret plot to overthrow a totalitarian and racist regime, straightforward heroes pitted against unambiguously nasty villains, the drama of discovery and mass arrests and finally the thrilling escape of at least some of those who were caught up in the net. To reach a mass audience, no dramatic licence would have to be taken; the bare facts of the story hardly need spicing up.      

Located in the then largely rural suburb of Rivonia 20km north of Johannesburg, Liliesleaf was where the leadership of the banned ANC, South African Communist Party and other liberation organisations met in secret to continue the fight against the apartheid regime. By then, the fateful decision had been made to embark on an “armed struggle”, traditional methods of peaceful protest having been rendered futile, if not impossible, by draconian state clampdowns. 

As everyone knows, it all ended in disaster, with a massive security police swoop on the premises on 11 July 1963. A number of leading activists were captured in the raid and many more were rounded up in the days that followed. The police also seized copious documentation, which would provide the basis for the state’s case in the (in)famous “Rivonia Trial” commencing in October that year.

Of the 10 accused who eventually stood trial, all but one of whom were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, Nelson Mandela is easily the most famous. What is not generally known, though, is that Mandela himself was not one of those captured in the raid. At the time, he was already in prison, having been convicted in 1962 of organising an illegal work stayaway. Prior to this, however, he had been very much part of the Liliesleaf scheme, and in its early stages had lived on the property, under the guise of a caretaker-cum-man servant named “David Motsamayi’”. It was the discovery of his diaries and papers hidden in the farm’s coal shed that saw him being identified as accused number one in the Rivonia Trial.

Were a movie about Liliesleaf to be made, Mandela would naturally be one of its most important characters but given his relatively short association with the site not the main one. That role would probably go to the flamboyant Arthur Goldreich, who with his family was living on the property and was its nominal owner. A gifted and successful artist, architect and designer, Goldreich was approached to be the occupant of Liliesleaf largely because, as a relative latecomer to the anti-apartheid resistance, he was still under the radar of the security establishment. 

Since he had served in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence (one of some 800 South African Jews who did so), his military experience was also regarded as an asset to the newly established armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto weSizwe. Goldreich was among those captured during the raid, but a month later he took the lead in a daring escape of himself and three other activists — Moosa Moolla, Harold Wolpe and Abdulhay Jassat — from Johannesburg’s Marshall Square prison. With the help of the anti-apartheid underground and despite a massive nationwide manhunt, all four were able to slip across the border into freedom.

None of the main players in the Liliesleaf drama are still alive. Andrew Mlangeni, the last of the Rivonia trialists, died in July 2020 while Arthur Goldreich himself died in Israel in May 2011. There remain at least two people, however, who can attest at first hand to what it was like to be at Liliesleaf during the 20 months or so that it served as the liberation movement’s clandestine headquarters. 

Arthur and Hazel Goldreich had two sons, Nicholas and Paul, who were respectively eight and six years old when the family moved from Parktown to Liliesleaf in December 1961. Today, both live in the UK, where Nicholas is a solicitor and Paul a Jungian analyst specialising in trauma therapy. On 24 May this year, they spoke about their experiences at the launch in Ra’anana, Israel, of Mensches in the Trenches – Jewish foot soldiers in the anti-apartheid Struggle. The book, written by Jonathan Ancer and produced under the auspices of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), tells the stories of activists who, while largely unrecognised and unsung, were in a variety of different areas at the coalface of opposing apartheid. 

They included academics, educators, theatre impresarios, journalists, businessmen and student leaders. An edited transcript of the interviews with Paul and Nicholas Goldreich, conducted by SAJBD national chairperson Professor Karen Milner, has since appeared as part of a feature on South African Jews under apartheid in the journal Jewish Affairs.

In retrospect, the Liliesleaf venture never had the slightest chance of success, and its failure was all the more inevitable in view of how inept the would-be revolutionaries were. Perhaps it would be kinder to say, as Paul Goldreich put it, that they were simply “unbelievably naïve”. Goldreich described how on Sundays, one would see them all out on the lawn blazing away with pistols at man-shaped targets. “How they imagined they would remain unseen and unheard, I just can’t think,” he said. 

He further recalled a “friend” of theirs, a boy from across the road, visiting them on a regular basis and writing down the number plate details of all the cars that were coming in and out. These he would give to his father, who would pass them on to the police. On one occasion, he asked them why there were so many “Bantus” coming in and out of the farm.

The brothers recalled the times they spent with Mandela, whom they knew only as “David”. They would engage in such activities as basketball, football, archery and knife throwing and Mandela would teach them about snakes and insects and how to make fire. Mandela and Arthur Goldreich would often meet to discuss various ideological and practical subjects pertaining to the armed struggle, either in the main house or Mandela’s room located in one of the outbuildings. 

Since it would have aroused suspicion for a black house servant to be seen on such intimate terms with the white “baas”, these exchanges took place after hours. Nicholas Goldreich also recalled walking past an open window and seeing his father coaching Mandela in delivering a speech for a radio broadcast (a clandestine radio facility having been set up on the farm). Later, he would work in London with someone who had heard that very broadcast and been radicalised by it. 

The National Party government exploited the Rivonia raid for all it was worth, trumpeting from the rooftops how a communist plot against South Africa had been foiled. Later, the term “communist” would be used against just about anyone left of center who opposed the apartheid system, but on this occasion the claim had a solid basis. Paul Goldreich said he was “talking about a group of black freedom fighters who connected themselves with staunch Jewish communists — seriously staunch Stalinists essentially. The South African Communist Party was the most vehement Communist Party in the world next to Russia’s”. 

So far as nearly all the white activists connected to Liliesleaf were concerned — they included Denis Goldberg, Lionel Bernstein, Joe Slovo, Michael Harmel and Harold Wolpe — that was undeniably true. Arthur Goldreich’s own communist sympathies are less certain. According to his son Paul, his position on apartheid was really driven by his awareness of the Holocaust. “For him, that was the root of his hatred for the apartheid system, because in it he could see the reverberations of Nazism within South Africa,” he said.

It would only be after February 1990, when the ban on the ANC and SA Communist Party was rescinded, that Goldreich would be able to return to his country of birth. In December 2001, together with Raymond Mhlaba, Goldberg, Mlangeni and Bernstein, he attended a reunion of Rivonia veterans held at Liliesleaf to mark the 40th anniversary of the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe. 

Govan Mbeki, one of the trialists, had since died, but his son Thabo, at the time South Africa’s president, was present for the occasion to announce the establishment of the Liliesleaf Trust. The object of the trust would be to return the house and the outbuildings where the trialists lived to their original state and create a museum to record the history of the site. 

In another profoundly meaningful link with the past, the chief executive of the trust was Nicolas Wolpe, whose father Harold had died five years previously. Among the historical structures preserved were the historic main house, outbuildings, thatched cottage, garage, coal shed and coal bunker, all of which played a key part in the Liliesleaf drama. A new liberation and resource centre was added later.

Very sadly, mounting financial problems led to the announcement at the beginning of September 2021 that Liliesleaf was being closed indefinitely, and the situation does not appear to have improved. In February this year the Liliesleaf board of trustees confirmed that the institution was bankrupt. Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa has since stated in parliament that a “turnabout strategy” to permanently remedy matters was being implemented by the Liliesleaf Board, and one can only hope that this will in time be achieved. 

Given it’s close association with one of the crucial epochs of the anti-apartheid struggle, as well as with Mandela, one of the undisputed global icons of the last century, Liliesleaf must be regarded not only as a national heritage site but an international one. As an irreplaceable part of our nation’s historical legacy it is essential that it be preserved, and it can — but we all need to care enough to make that happen.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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David Saks
David Saks is associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals.

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